Did the school you lead meet its 2016-2017 goals? By goals I mean the goals that were in writing, approved by the Board and shared with staff. If so, congratulations. How are you going to build on that growth next year?
If not, what are you going to do differently next year?
Regardless of your answer to my question, the solution is the same. Strategy.
When I was a principal three common issues seemed keep me up at night. Student achievement, teacher turnover and parent relationships.
Issue 1: Student Achievement
Did you know that 62% of students with disabilities spend 80% of their school day in general education classes (OSEP, 2015). This doesn’t even take into consideration the at-risk students who didn’t qualify for services. They of course spend 100% of their day in general education. How about the complete other side of the spectrum, your academically gifted. They too are in those same classes. So, my question for you is: How much professional development, feedback and training during the school year are you providing your general education teachers on how to effectively lead students who are disabled, at-risk and/or academically gifted?
Before you go questioning whether or not you should be leading the school realize that you are not alone here. I can only speak for myself when I say the charter school I led was great for 50% of our population, good for 35% and the other 15% we were just there for. That other 15% fell into the acronym categories, EC and AIG. I would always marvel at our subgroup proficiency scores and wonder how our economically disadvantaged kids would outperform our non-economically disadvantaged. But I never had a different strategy for closing that gap, nor did I have any solutions for our gifted or high performing students except either give them more work or place them in a high school course.
At this point of the year (end of June) you should be on vacation, sipping your favorite adult beverage with friends and family. At most making subtle tweaks to your next year’s plan. However, most of you have barely had the time to reflect on “what went well” and “what went wrong” this past year. Sadly, you might be all alone trying to figure this out. I know I was in my first two years as a principal.
I recently heard Simon Sinek, best selling author and speaker, talking about effective leadership strategies. He made an incredible point about the mistake most leaders make is making decisions in a silo. He asked, if all of the authority is at the top but all of the information is at the bottom, how can the decision makers make effective decisions? It is critical that you build a cohesive leadership team – throw away titles and build a team today!
It is critical that each year (beginning in February at the latest) you should be collaborating with your leadership team and key teacher leaders on where the school needs to improve next year. Identify the three to five themes and design your entire teacher workday calendar as being the catalyst for change in those areas. In every school, there are educators who exemplify best practices. Ask these teacher leaders to facilitate the professional development sessions during the workdays. If the team decides the school does not have someone who can lead a session, find a fellow school who does and ask to “borrow a teacher” for the day. Be sure to schedule follow up training sessions throughout the year as well as an accountability calendar to verify teachers are implementing these school improvement initiatives with fidelity. Provide follow up, small group, training and coaching, to those that are struggling.
Issue 2: Teacher Turnover
According to ASCD (2014), a study completed found that 73% of principals are not trained on how to conduct “effective, fair and legal” teacher interviews.
I have mentioned many times in my talks, training’s and blogs how terrible the teacher turnover rate was at the charter school I led. Makes you wonder why am I learning from this guy? My question to you is, How have you modified your interview questions and processes to ensure you are hiring the most effective teacher who can lead a classroom, increase student achievement, collaborate with other adults, and strengthen the schools culture?
I recommend that each year (Spring) you gather the meeting minutes from your school leadership team/school improvement meetings. Note: If you are not taking meeting minutes during your leadership team meetings, start immediately. Here is the link to a lesson I taught on leading effective meetings. With your hiring committee, identify the recurring challenges the leadership team discussed. Utilize these themed challenges to write a set of interview questions. Other resources you can utilize to write interview questions are the school’s teacher evaluation instrument, the school’s outlined education plan, school data and characteristics for effective schools literature (parent engagement, safe schools, relationships, pedagogy and curriculum). If you lead a school that serves a low income population, don’t waste time asking them why they became a teacher. Ask them about their thoughts on conducting home visits. Ask them about the differences in teaching children in poverty. Drill down into the “What” and “How” about effective teacher leadership. Provide them hypothetical scenarios regarding classroom management that takes them through a series of disruptions by a particular student during a lesson. How would they address this student. You will learn a great deal about their mindset and belief in how students should behave, be treated and their expectation of you as the principal. Don’t just ask them how they work with other adults. Ask them to provide specific details, “Think about the last time you collaborated with a content colleague. How did you contribute? What were the results? What were your collaborative reflections on what you would do differently.
You only learn from evaluative experience. Take into consideration the teachers you “missed” on. What was the question you should have asked to realize they were not the best fit for the school culture? So many times I have used generic questions and paid for it the entire year. Spend the time writing questions that you didn’t find Googling “top interview questions for teachers”. Don’t laugh, I know you have done that. As my mentor John Maxwell taught me, if you don’t spend the time preparing on the front end, I guarantee you will spend the time repairing on the back.
Issue 3: Parent to School Relationships
A 2015 study by revealed that only 24% of principals conduct home visits. The reasons principals noted for not conducting home visits range from safety to having the time and resources.
In many districts across the United Stated school boards are eliminating parent conference requirements as students get older because parents are simply not showing up. Research conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics discovered that attendance for parent-teacher conferences drops dramatically through the grade levels (89% in grades K-2 to 57% in high school). My question for you is, Why do you think parents choose the school you lead?
Whether you think it is the unique mission, the stellar academics or a strategic partnership with a local university. The answer in relationships. Parents choose charter schools because they feel that their child is safe, cared for and the trust that adults in charge. Raising parent engagement is a critical characteristic of an effective charter school. Whether it is through parent conferences, town meetings or monthly Coffee with the Principal, you must find way to keep your parents engaged and informed.
I am fascinated that some school districts have eliminated parent conferences. Instead of dumping this opportunity, why not ask the question what should parent conferences look like and result in? Henderson Collegiate Charter School in Vance County, North Carolina is one of the top performing public schools in the state. They serve a high population of students in poverty. Their founder, Eric Sanchez, and other school leaders have a family conference with every incoming student to go over the school’s mission, purpose and expectations for each student. They now have over 1,000 students! That is at least 1,000 hours of face to face time with parents clarifying the goals and expectations of their program. Do you think that has an impact on whether or not a parent believes their child is in good hands?
My daughter’s charter school, The Exploris School, has always had two parent conferences per year. They are scheduled for 15 minutes at the halfway point of the year and the end. The first two years I was not impressed with the conference structure. Mainly because the conference was filled with quantitative data (mClass and NWEA MAP) comparisons. Which is crazy because I LOVE DATA. I made a comment to the principal that I was disappointed in the lack of “mission and values based” feedback we received during the meeting. My daughter’s school is an experiential learning, project based education plan. I would love to learn more about how they know she is learning how to critically think and solve global problems locally (which is part of their mission). Now, in her third year there, the parent conference was student led as opposed to teacher driven. This gave me a different perspective. The meeting was more goal oriented and focused on a chosen core value (my daughter chose Grit) to demonstrate through her portfolio.
Another aspect that I love about my daughter’s school is their parent conferences are family friendly. They have areas for siblings to sit on the computer or color. This could be a deterrent for many families of multiple siblings so be conscious of the unintended consequences your rules and policies set.
Finally, it is a great idea to schedule a specific, uninterrupted time in a teacher’s weekly schedule for them to make parent contacts (positive and proactive). Have the teachers keep a simple log through a shared Google Sheet that let’s you see when the last contacts were made to certain families.
Here is a law for you to remember. Growth is not automatic. Whether it is organizational or personal, growth does not occur without intentional action. The ability of you and the team you lead to be consistent will compound over time. Schools do not receive accolades for being consistent for the first quarter only!
Everything worthwhile is uphill. As a leader of the organization, you must know that the school you lead cannot climb uphill if it is filled with downhill habits. Your leadership title comes from the governing board, but your ability lead will be determined by the employees that are in your charge. So, get off whatever device you are using to read this and begin putting action steps under those strategies. Today matters.
This blog was written by Dr. Thomas Miller. A certified executive coach through the John Maxwell Team and CEO of Leaders Building Leader. An organization focused on being the difference maker in the leadership development of individuals and organizations. If you found this article to be helpful please comment or share. If you are looking to grow personally and professionally, reach out to [email protected] for a complimentary coaching session.